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May 12, 2018
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May 12, 2018

Heavenly Bodies: In praise of the Catholic Imagination

El Greco’s Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (ca. 1600); and an evening coat by Cristobal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, autumn/winter 1954–55. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb.

By Simone Delochan,

The Catholic faith and its belief and practices have inspired more than artists, poets, sculptors, and writers and movie directors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute in New York, themed its annual gala Heavenly Bodies, (May 7) which explored the influence of Catholicism in fashion.

Perhaps it’s not the first thing anyone would consider, preferring to think about the elevated imagery of da Vinci or the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins rather than lean models on the runway.

Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, said: “Fashion and religion have long been intertwined, mutually inspiring and informing one another. Although this relationship has been complex and sometimes contested, it has produced some of the most inventive and innovative creations in the history of fashion” (

In a Catholic News Agency article, he explains that “the focus is on a shared hypothesis about what we call the Catholic imagination and the way it has engaged artists and designers and shaped their approach to creativity, as opposed to any kind of theology or sociology. Beauty has often been a bridge between believers and unbelievers.

At the onset, the intention was to exhibit the fashion influences of several world religions, but Catholic inspiration proved vast and a body unto itself which is not surprising considering that many of the well-known designers have Catholic roots: Elsa Schiaparelli, John Galliano, Riccardo Tisci, Christian Lacroix, Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Norman Norell, and Thom Browne. It is interesting to note that even if there is movement away from the faith, something of the imagery and power of the Catholic aesthetic remained.

Styles took inspiration from Byzantine iconography, religious orders, the sacraments, symbols and clerical wear. The guests wore an array of vestments and accessories, from stylised haloes to gowns reminiscent of religious paintings and another, a re-imagined papal vestment.

On display were, frankly, masterpieces of religious haute couture: a Chanel gown inspired by First Communion dresses; an angel gown by Thierry Mueller; a Christian Lacroix jacket covered in crosses, a gown by Valentino reflecting depictions of monks’ robes.

The theme was Vatican approved, and Bolton met with officials eight times while in the planning stages of the event. In addition to approval, 50 papal vestments, rings, tiaras, and other accessories from the Sistine Chapel sacristy were also lent to the display. During the process, Bolton learnt that “the popes all had their own styles and that ‘there is personality behind’ all of the separate tiaras and vestments” (‘How the Met got the Vatican’s vestments’, New York Times, May 3).

In the Met museum’s article on the framework of the exploration, Fr Andrew Greely is quoted. “In his book The Catholic Imagination, Greeley states: ‘The Catholic imagination in all its many manifestations . . . tends to emphasise the metaphorical nature of creation. . . . Everything in creation, from the exploding cosmos to the whirling, dancing, and utterly mysterious quantum particles, discloses something about God and, in so doing, brings God among us.”

Beauty and the ornate are historically embedded in the evolution of the Catholic aesthetic, as well as cultural and social adaptation. One only has to look at the magnificent architecture of medieval European churches, and the lavishly jewelled and decorated altars, chalices and chasubles.

That the Catholic imagination has filtered through so many artistic spheres, with subtle but lasting impact, is surely a type of evangelisation and  perhaps, should not be merely dismissed as scandal or the nouveau sentiment of cultural appropriation.